Were Jesus’s parables really supposed to confuse people?
Parables simultaneously reveal and conceal the truth about Christ.
In Matthew 13:10-17, in the midst of his parables of the kingdom, Jesus explained something of the purpose of the parables to his disciples. The answer is problematic, however, because it goes against our common assumption that the purpose of the parables was to simplify and clarify. Consider the following:
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And Jesus answered them in a way we might find disturbing:
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
This raises a couple of questions.
Is the purpose of the parables to reveal truth?
This seems to be one of the most obvious things in the world at first glance. My guess is that if you asked most regular church attenders what the purpose of the parables was, you would hear something like “stories that illustrate truths or principles from Jesus.” And for good reason.
The word “parable” actually comes from a compound Greek word parabola meaning “to throw alongside.” In other words, a parable is meant to be a story thrown alongside a more abstract idea to illustrate it in familiar terms. Parables are earthly stories illustrating heavenly truths. For example, has ever a better illustration been given of what it means to love one’s neighbor than the story of the Good Samaritan; or, of the forgiving love of the Father than the story of the Prodigal Son?
So the parables exist to reveal, clarify, illustrate truth.
But, if this is the case, why did Jesus have to explain his parables so many times? This leads us to our next question.
Is the purpose of the parables to conceal truth?
In verse 10, Jesus is asked by his disciples the precise question that we are considering this morning. This what we want to know. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus’ answer is as pointed as it is shocking. Rather than to reveal his teaching, Jesus says his parables are meant to conceal truth.
First, he says, it distinguishes between his disciples and the unbelieving crowd. Verse 11: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” This highlights the necessity of supernatural revelation for us to know divine truth. Divine revelation is necessary because humans naturally do not understand God’s truth.
First Corinthians 2:14 tells us that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Scriptre clearly teaches human inability to attain any saving knowledge of God apart from an exercise of his grace. For example, in John 6:44, Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The word “can” is a word of ability.
While all are invited to come and all “may” (a word of permission) come to Christ, the biblical reality is that no one can apart from God’s gracious drawing of that individual to himself. This fulfills Isaiah 6:9-10 quoted in verses 14-15. We see here the nature of human ability. It is not the lacking of some physical faculty, but a moral inability. They see, but will not see. This means they are morally responsible, because it is not lack of physical ability that hinders them from coming to Christ. This is why Jesus could say in Matthew 23:37, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Their guilt is their own.
Human inability, God’s ability
This reality of human inability makes divine initiative an absolute necessity if anyone is ever to be saved. Thankfully, God graciously reveals himself to some. To his disciples, Jesus said in verse 11, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” This is exactly what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11:25-27:
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
These verses highlight the divine prerogative that God has to reveal truth to some and conceal it from others. We don’t understand this fully, but we are committed to believing what Scripture teaches and rejoice that God in his grace has chosen to reveal himself to us. This is exactly what Jesus says we should do (verses 16-17). Marvel at divine grace to you! The doctrine of election is never in Scripture something to be argued over and debated, but something to wonder over in amazement at God’s grace. If we truly understand human sinfulness and rebellion, our question will never be, “Why does God not reveal himself to some?”, but “Why, oh why, has God revealed himself to me?”
The answer is “yes”
So, the answer to the question, “Did Jesus teach in parables to reveal or conceal truth?”, is an unequivocal “Yes!” Jesus taught in parables to illustrate and clarify abstract spiritual truths with physical illustrations with which everyone could identify. However, he did so in such a way that those truths would actually be unclear to those in rebellion against him and clear only to those committed to following him.
Though Jesus spoke these parables in public to large crowds, they mostly only heard a good story. They didn’t understand the spiritual meaning. When Jesus was alone with his disciples, he would explain the heavenly meaning. In this way, Jesus made it more difficult for his opponents to have accusations against him, but he also used this method to fulfill his divine prerogative of revealing truth to some and concealing it from others. The same sun that hardens the clay, also melts the wax. In a similar way, the same parables which concealed the truth to some, revealed it to others.
At the end of the day, our response should be gratitude to God for his gracious revelation of himself to us.
The primary response of believers should be gratefulness! We who were spiritually dead and totally unable to come to God have been awakened by divine grace and made to see the glories of Christ to which we have gladly responded in repentance and faith. To God alone be the glory!
This teaching should also lead us to compassion for the lost. That we would weep for them as Jesus did and plead with them to come to Christ (as Jesus did). We should pray to God that the same God who opened our eyes would open their eyes to the gospel. This is their only hope. If we truly believed this, we would be people of prayer!
Finally, we should be grateful that we have in Scripture Christ’s own explanation of many of these parables. These teachings have been preserved for us by the work of the Holy Spirit who inspired biblical writers to record this information. We also have the presence of this very same Holy Spirit in our lives as believers to lead us in our study of Scripture. The Spirit of Christ himself lives within every believer guiding in our understanding of God’s Word. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!